NT 5.0 hits the halfway mark

NT 5.0 hits the halfway mark

Microsoft's long-anticipated and largely hyped Windows NT Server 5.0 is moving along in development, as evidenced by the company's recent release of the product's second public beta version. But there are still quite a few improvements that Microsoft must make before you can give NT Server the go-ahead in your enterprise.

The enhancements in NT Server will provide a stronger infrastructure for building distributed applications and solve some problems for current Microsoft customers. Microsoft, however, still has a long way to go before it can assure enterprise customers that the product will provide adequate functionality for customers to proceed with an upgrade or to migrate from other platforms, such as Novell's NetWare.

This latest beta release of NT Server shows quite a bit of improvement over the previous beta releases that I have tested. But the product still appears to be in a fairly early stage of beta testing.

Perhaps the most anticipated feature of NT Server is Microsoft's Active Directory. Although features such as transitive trusts, delegated administration, and multimaster replication will provide some relief for current NT Server 4.0 sites, Active Directory still relies rather heavily on the Windows NT "domain" construction, which introduces some limitations. In addition, there are a few issues that I found in the product that can make life more difficult for administrators.

In particular, Active Directory's implementation of hierarchical organisational units appears to lack the hierarchy, as each directory object still requires a globally unique name. For example, I created two organisational unit objects, which I called "Reviews" and "News". However, I was unable to create an "Editors" group in each container, because each directory object must have a unique relative name, regardless of the fact that they are in different directory containers.

This "flat" directory implementation is also evident in the user list dialogues, used to perform Active Directory administration. This makes the product more difficult to administer, because when selecting members of a group, for example, you can't limit the users displayed to just those in a particular organisational unit. Instead, you must scroll through a list of all users in a directory.

I was also a bit dismayed by Microsoft's implementation of groups. With Active Directory there are now three different group types - Domain local, Global, and Universal and JScript (Microsoft's implementation of JavaScript) in user log-in scripts. However, log-in scripts are not integrated into the Active Directory, they are still implemented on the file systems and require additional replication management to perform adequately.

Finally, Microsoft claims to perform property-level synchronisation. However, based on my testing I found that if two administrators update the same directory object on different domain controllers within the space of a synchronisation interval, then the second administrator's changes will be applied and the first administrator's changes will be overwritten. This is true even if both administrators change different attributes of the same directory object, such as a user or group object.

NT Server will also sport an embedded management infrastructure that should help administrators ease the desktop-management burden. Key to these efforts is Microsoft's IntelliMirror technologies, which consist of Application Distribution, user data synchronisation between the client and ser-ver, and better distributed application and user policy management.

Each of these technologies leverages the Active Directory. Overall, these capabilities performed well, however, NT Server's Application Distribution functionality suffers from a couple of drawbacks.

Microsoft has plans to provide administrators with the tools required for building application packages. This will allow administrators to more easily support current versions of applications. However, the ability to assign or publish applications and other IntelliMirror technologies will only be supported for Windows NT 5.0 clients. That means you will need to invest in a more robust application distribution platform, such as those available from Tivoli, Network Associates, or even Microsoft's Systems Management Server, to gain support for Windows 3.x, 9.x, or other platforms. In contrast, Novell's NetWare 5 application deployment tools provide an application installer and support for all Windows platforms.

There are also a number of networking improvements to NT Server, such as support for ATM and Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol, and various quality of service specifications, such as Resource Reservation Protocol, or RSVP. Microsoft has also implemented its Routing and Remote Access Server (RRAS) add-on to the product.

One key add-on to the RRAS feature set in this latest beta release is Network Address Translation (NAT). Setting up the NAT feature is pretty easy. However, Microsoft requires you to use a hard-coded private IP address on your internal network interface card.

Windows NT Server 5.0 brings many new features to the platform. The product is bound to capture the eye of distributed applications developers because many of its new services will ease the burden of writing distributed applications. However, core services such as the Active Directory still need quite a few improvements.

The Bottom Line

Windows NT Server 5.0, beta

This latest beta version of Microsoft's network operating system platform shows improvement over previous beta versions, but there are some notable deficiencies. Ship date is yet to be determined.

Pros: Active Directory eliminates some of the hassle associated with current domain architectures; core services, such as Transaction Server, Message Queue Server, and Certificate Server are included in the base platform; includes Microsoft's Terminal Server enhancements.

Cons: Active Directory still shows a lot of immaturity with respect to restrictions and beta bugs; Microsoft IntelliMirror technologies function only in tandem with NT Workstation 5.0.

Platforms: Intel Pentium 166MHz (or faster) with a minimum of 64MB of RAM or Digital Alpha with a minimum of 96MB of RAMPrice: Not yet determinedMicrosoft Australia Ph 13 2058

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